I listen to a lot of music – when I work, and when I play. And here are three more singers I come back to, time and time again.
(For those of you with short memories, my first three "comfort listening" singers were Van Morrison, Alison Krauss, and Raul Malo of the Mavericks.)
Is Jussi Bjoerling the greatest singer who ever lived? Perhaps.
The late Swedish tenor's voice is one of the most remarkable instruments of all time. The first time you hear him, it's like the first time you've really heard the human voice sing clearly and perfectly.
Don't take my word for it. Here are just a few of things said about him:
"His voice was a true tenor of velvety smoothness, though capable also of ringing high notes of considerable power; admirably schooled, it showed remarkable consistency from top to bottom of his register and throughout the thirty years of his career."
-- The New Grove Dictionary of Opera
"Considered by many to be the greatest lyric tenor of the twentieth century ... the sound was extraordinary, and as Romeo, Faust, and anything else that demanded fluid, high-placed singing, he was unrivalled."
-- The Rough Guide to Opera, 4th Edition
"Possibly the most widely admired tenor of mid-century, Bjoerling excelled in the spinto roles of Verdi and Puccini. Initially a bright, sweet lyric sound, his perfectly placed voice acquired a brilliant timbre and was capable of gentle pianissimos as well as considerable heroic thrust."
-- The Metroplitan Opera Encyclopedia
"When I'm about to train a new opera, I first listen to how Jussi Bjoerling did it. His voice was unique, and it's his path that I want to follow. I would more than anything else wish that people compared me with Jussi Bjoerling. It's like so I'm striving to sing."
-- Luciano Pavarotti
It's the absolute beauty of Bjoerling's voice (something he shared with Pavarotti) that makes him unique and a true immortal. And it was a voice that recording technology captured perfectly. Some recordings he made in the 1930s have never been out of print, and never will be. After eighty years, they are unexcelled.
Bjoerling left behind ten complete opera recordings, along with many performance and recital recordings. Some of his most famous are his LA BOHEME with Victoria de los Angeles, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, and his TURANDOT, with Birgit Nilsson, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. In perfomance his ROMEO ET JULIETTE with Bidu Sayo from the Metropolitan Opera in 1947 is one of the true treasures of the Met's archives. He was nicknamed "the Swedish Caruso," even though his voice was lighter than the Italian legend's.
Born into a family of singers, Bjoerling was not only a "natural," he was well-schooled at the beginning and remained an immaculate, disciplined singer. But he developed a major problem with alcohol, which took a toll on his work habits – he disdained rehearsing – but never on his voice. He remained the almost-perfect singer of his generation, right up until he died at the age of 49 in 1960.
Maybe he wasn't the greatest actor in the world and maybe he didn't vary his voice as other great singers can do to fit different characters, but 'who cares?' when you listen to his voice.
I listen to Jussi -- after all the decades of listening, we're now on a first-name basis -- all the time. At any and all times of day. His voice is like an aural "sorbet course" between anything else I'm listening to. Even silence.
If I were forced to choose one singer to listen to, until the end of time, I think it would be Jussi because I can listen to him the first thing in the morning, all through the day, even when I'm working, and long into the night. His singing never, ever disappoints. (And the TG absolutely loves him.)
If you've never listened to Jussi Bjoerling before, get ready for the thrill of a lifetime. I have a friend, an opera hater, who said to me, "Jussi Bjoerling almost makes me like opera."
Here's some live Jussi links, proof of the miracle:
TWO(!) brilliant versions of "Nessun Dorma" from TURANDOT, an opera he never performed onstage
– live with an orchestra in 1944 – from the Stockholm Concert Hall – super-singing
-- live with just piano accompaniment from Carnegie Hall in 1958
The Flower Song from CARMEN
"Il Mio Tesoro" from DON GIOVANNI
"O Soave Fanciulla" from LA BOHEME (with Renata Tebaldi)
website of the Jussi Bjoerling Society
I remember the first time I really heard Emmylou Harris' voice. It was in 1973. (My first year out of college. The TG and I were living in Yonkers, New York, and commuting to work in Manhattan.)
Of all the rock groups of the 1960s, my favorites were The Beatles and The Byrds. I never saw the Beatles, but I saw the Byrds many times. When I was young, I loved folk music. And when I got a little older, I loved rock and roll. So it only made sense that I would flip over "folk rock" (and its first cousin "country rock.") The Byrds found a way to get the melody, substance, and message of folk music into super-charged rock. That's why they proved to be one of the most influential of all American rock bands. The band went through many many changes in its existence (from 1964 to 1973), with the sole constant being Roger McGuinn's distinctive tenor and signature 12-string Rickenbacker jangle. He made the sound of the Byrds unique.
I loved the Byrds through all their personnel changes. The original five members (McGuinn, Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Gene Clark, and Michael Clarke) were an extraordinary group when you think that four of the five were first-class singers. With all kinds of ego clashes and career up-and-downs, the Byrds eventually had, in all its incarnations, eleven different members.
One of my favorite members was Gram Parsons. He changed the Byrds, steering them in a country direction for the "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" abum in 1968, an album that opened up the entire new genre of 'country rock.'
Parsons is, of course, a legendary figure by now. Dead at 26 from an overdose (he didn't even make the notorious Club of 27 to join Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse), he crowded a lot of life into a short time. He dropped out of Harvard, joined the Byrds to virtually create 'country rock', hung out with Keith Richards and introduced the Rolling Stones to country music, discovered and nurtured Emmylou Harris, and had his dead body stolen by friends who burned it in the Joshua Tree National Park. Whew.
When he left the Byrds with Chris Hillman to found the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1968, I was all in. Their first album – "The Gilded Palace of Sin" – is still the best country rock album of all time. When it didn't sell, Parsons was never the same. He left the Burrito Brothers after two albums, but not before I saw him with the group at Carnegie Hall in late 1970.
So I was primed for his first solo album – "GP" -- was released in 1973. And at 1:43 of the second cut "That's All It Took," this female voice joined Gram's such as I'd never heard before. Sweet, silvery, and angelic, but intelligent and incisive, too. That was the first time I'd heard Emmylou Harris' voice.
Parsons died in 1973, but Emmylou went on to have one of the best careers in popular music. She's won 13 Grammys and is almost universally beloved and respected by her peers. By some counts, she's appeared as a harmony vocalist on the records of an incredible 350 different artists, including Bob Dylan, the Band, Roy Orbison, Mark Knopfler, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young – not to mention her high-profile "Trio" with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.
Homecoming queen and valedictorian, Emmylou combines brains and beauty in a way that has enraptured her fans since that first Gram Parsons record in 1973. One of the things I admire most about Emmylou is her restless creative spirit. She's had at least THREE great country bands – the Hot Band (from Parsons, she inherited most of Elvis Presley's legendary TCB band), the Nash Ramblers (a bluegrass band with virtuoso Sam Bush) and Spyboy (an alterative country band, incubated by producer Daniel Lanois) – and she disbanded them all! She's always changing and evolving.
I don't have all her studio albums – there are 26 of them -- but I have a lot of them. But I do have about 90 bootleg concerts, from all stages of her career: that's what I mainly listen to.
I have my "Emmylou Harris" Pandora station, and it's one of the first I go to, when I'm easing into some popular music after a morning of classical music. And Emmylou almost never disappoints. I don't think she's ever released a bad album. Her "batting average" is higher than almost anyone in popular music. All the great ones – Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the Stones – have released bad albums. Emmylou, never.
Here are a couple of beauties from Emmylou – "... lookin' like an angel, singin' like an angel" --
"Pancho and Lefty" – Townes Van Zandt's great song – one of Emmylou's signature songs
"Two More Bottles of Wine" – with the Hot Band – from Dutch TV
"The Maker" – Daniel Lanois' magical song – Emmylou with Spyboy
"One of These Days" – Emmylou's mother's favorite song
I still listen to a lot of classic reggae from the 1960s and 70s. I listent to it when I work in my garden, and sometimes I listen to it when I swim. Like so many rock and roll fans, I got into reggae with the 1973 release of the soundtrack of THE HARDER THEY COME, the Jimmy Cliff movie, and fell in love with the genre. The thing is, I never stopped listening.
Reggae is a unique combination of genres -- calypso, Jamaican mento, plus jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, folk, Gospel, and rock. The offbeat rhythms and easy syncopation make it an interesting, fresh music to listen to. How reggae combines all these strains is the story for an entire book.
Reggae was blessed with many brilliant artists (singers, songwriters, producers, and musicians) to carry the music forward. How else could a native strain of music from a small island of perhaps two million people influence and change popular music all over the world? Before it was over, everyone from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton to Bruce Springsteen was trying a little reggae in their music.
One of my favorite reggae artists is/was Gregory Isaacs (1951-2010). Gregory was a big enough star to merit several nicknames: "The Cool Ruler," "The King of Lover's Reggae," "Mr. Isaacs," and "the Marvin Gaye of reggae." He virtually invented the smooth, sensitive sub-genre of "lover's reggae" and made some of the sexiest, sweetest records ever. Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, he made more and better popular music than almost any artist I know of.
Gregory came to a bad end. Cocaine addiction and involvements in criminal activities took a toll on him. Once he was jailed for six months on a weapons charge, when it turned out that it was his 27th arrest. He wound up losing his teeth and recording way too much music to support his drug habit. But his early stuff is fantastic and supremely easy on the ear as it rocks you gently, in the way that only reggae can: "regularly." That's how it got its name.
Reggae lost the spotlight when Bob Marley, its greatest practitioner, died in 1981, but the music lives on. I have a "Bob Marley" station on Pandora. And whenever a Gregory Isaacs song that I love plays – say "My Only Lover," "Lonely Lover," "Something Nice," or "Extra Classic" – it gives my heart an extra little lift. And I "like" it on my Sonos – to get more Gregory.
The New York Times once called him "the most exquisite vocalist in reggae" and they were right. As Ziggy Marley, son of Bob, said, "He's right up there with my father."
Here is some great Gregory:
"Live at the Brixton Academy" – 1984 – the complete concert (!) – filled with fantastic music – lots of "greatest hits" – "Night Nurse," "Front Door," "Number One," "Love Is Overdue," "Soon Forward" – but check out "Slavemaster" at 32:14 – as good as music gets
"The Border" – a stadium show in the UK
"Reggae Sunsplash" in the UK -- 1985
Thank goodness for recorded music!
In the perfect words of Nietszche (my one-time infatuation) – "Without music, life would be an error."
I already know the three whom I'm doing for Comfort Listening (Part III)